A healthy workplace can help the depressed out of darkness

Donna Hardaker
Donna Hardaker

You can’t be sure exactly when it hit you, but it becomes achingly obvious at home and at work as the months wear on: anger, irritability and a relentless sense of hopelessness; constant physical pain and confusion; sleepless nights and loss of appetite. The satisfaction of feeling engaged, fulfilled and trusted at work – of being liked by colleagues – is a distant memory.

Your manager stops talking to you. Co-workers avoid you. Tasks are parceled out to co-workers. You aren’t informed about updates to meetings and projects. You are terrified of making mistakes. You are waiting to be fired.

Years ago, all this happened to me, and I judged myself harshly for being weak and stupid to let this happen to me, someone who was once a rising star.

This slow burning nightmare overtook my career in academia following an automobile accident. A whiplash injury was easily diagnosed and everyone around me understood it as a physical condition. I wish that had been the case with my other diagnosis: depression.

What made the experience so devastating was the isolation I experienced in the workplace. Yet, I have compassion for my co-workers. Their reaction to my changed behavior was reflexive, even instinctive. They did not know that isolating me was not their only option. In workplaces everywhere, employees who are struggling and are perceived as different are often written off as a problem.

I am not disavowing responsibility for my changed behavior and its impact on my colleagues. But a healthy work environment plays a huge role in getting well. Even when I sought treatment, dealt with multiple doctors and medications, juggled appointments, used services through the Employee Assistance Program and dealt with side effects of medication, I was still coming in to a dysfunctional workplace and was relegated to the role of outcast.

Most people who have mental health challenges are like me: working, productive, with families and friends and interests, who from time to time may need support and flexibility at work. You likely work with many people who have mental health challenges, but you probably don’t know who they are. How safe is it for people to share this information at work? How equipped is your workplace to provide support during recovery?

Today, California is at the forefront of a national social justice movement to erase stigma and social prejudice toward people who have mental health challenges, including in the workplace. Abundant learning opportunities are available to discard negative perceptions in the workplace that impede an employee’s ability to find a path to recovery. Training can teach managers and employees how to broaden their thinking and overcome awkwardness in approaching people who have mental health problems.

Mental health in the workplace is an enormous issue within our nation’s economy. Studies estimate the economic cost of $105 billion annually through the impact on productivity from untreated mental health conditions. Addressing mental health in the workplace eases the burdens of the employee, the employee’s supervisor and co-workers, the employee’s family and community.

May is Mental Health Month, when California’s Each Mind Matters movement recognizes the power within all of us to reverse stigma around mental health and effect hope, resilience and recovery. If you hear about it, or see one of us wearing the movement’s distinctive lime green ribbon, please see this as our invitation to learn more.

Donna Hardaker is director of Wellness Works, a workplace mental health training program based in Sacramento.